Bergson impulse of

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Description: Posts about Bergson-Einstein Debate written by Magnus Opium

This modest post-script to an earlier post owes a great deal to Jimena Canales’ paper on the Bergson Einstein debate. published in Project Muse .  Canales’ is an excellent account of the debate in the context of the League of Nations and the differing political views of Bergson and Einstein.  In the paper, Canales navigates the debate carefully, pointing out that Bergson never disputed the scientific findings of Relativity, only their philosophical significance.

The most infamous disagreement in the debate concerned the twin paradox, which Bergson was widely reported to deny.  Yet, he fully acknowledged that the travelling twin would be younger and the clock would show an earlier time, he simply disputed the conclusions drawn about time from this fact.

The intellectual dispute between Bergson and Einstein is really between Bergson the brilliant and honored mathematician, and Einstein the consummate physicist. There is an old joke about a mathematician and a physicist on an airplane.  The mathematician sees a cow on the ground and points it out to the physicist, saying “There is one cow, brown on top.”  The physicist sees it and replies “There is one brown cow.”  In essence, when the spaceship returns, Bergson only sees a younger twin and an earlier time on the clock, but he makes no assumptions about the other side of the cow, about what conclusion should be drawn concerning time proper.  Bergson held that the questions about time when the twin returns would be philosophical, political and psychological rather than scientific, since the other side of the cow cannot be seen.  Einstein however sees one brown cow, he assumes he knows what time essentially is, and it is no more than movement.  Thus, Bergson’s critique of science for confusing space with time- not at all because they are bound together in space time (the four dimensional nature of which Bergson acknowledged), but because physics is confusing the spatial measure of time for time itself.

Unfortunately, even pathetically, Bergson is left with the old Socratic form of the question, in effect asking Einstein “What is Time?”, and Einstein replies by presenting a clock.

Bergson gives us a monist’s argument for a pure duality, between élan vital and inert matter, between intensities and extended objects, between qualities and quantities.    In this duality the élan vital remains ontologically primary, while inert matter is the degeneration of life.   Deleuze and Guattari are able to retain the Bergsonian  vision of élan vital as ascending life and inert matter as descending matter by substituting for them the only partially disguised dualities:  energy and matter, the plane and the strata, intensity and extension, speed and slowness, the molecular and the molar, the smooth and the striated, the quick and the weighty, celeritas and gravitas, non-pulsed time and pulsed time.

If Deleuze and Guattari essentially accept the Bergsonian schema, it is not without reserve.  Deleuze and Guattari emphasize that although the plane of consistency (corresponding to the élan vital) is ontologically primary, the strata (corresponding to inert matter) are ontologically necessary.  Bergson may have acknowledged this necessity as a practical fact, but Deleuze and Guattari make it an absolute, pre-given condition of existence.

Bergson’s duality between intensity and extended objects is simply universalized for Deleuze and Guattari, thus escaping the slide into mind-body dualism (intense mind, extended bodies) that is present as a potential of Bergson’s argument.  All things have an intense, unformed side, and not only conscious life.

In the great tradition of pragmatism (albeit a bastard form), Deleuze and Guattari also managed to rectify a conflict between intellectual giants.  Bergson famously lost a debate with Einstein in which he refuted Relativity’s relative time.

To get at the issues, let us reexamine the case of Achilles and the tortoise; only let us introduce special parameters with relativity in mind.  Let us assume that Achilles can approach light speed, while the tortoise plods along, slow step by ever slow step.    Achilles, travelling at such a rate of speed would experience time dilation. Let us assume that for every one hour that passes on Achilles’ wristwatch, two hours pass for the tortoise.  What, for Achilles would seem like a trip of one hour to the finish line would be a trip of two hours for the tortoise, meaning that the tortoise has more time to race, and would get to the finish line first.  Thus, Einstein’s relativity opens the possibility of reintroducing the Eleatic paradoxes back into the equation.

The reason we can apply the paradox to Einstein’s Relativity and reintroduce the Eleatic paradoxes under the form of time (rather than movement) is a result of the spatialization of time.  Spatializing time ends up being a useful tool for science, but believing that time is reducible to space is an error.

The error consists in considering time as purely relative when the perspectives of  Achilles and the tortoise ( or, if you like, the man on the train and the man on the ground) are absolute.  At the finish line, Achilles will still shake the tortoises hand and there will have been a duration since the starting gun, even if Achilles experienced less “time”, when the fact of the matter is that he went through a more contracted space.  These two absolute perspectives add up to a single time, even if the events do not unfold in the same order.  Events themselves are nothing more than appearances in space, and time itself is absolute as duration even if those appearances vary in their order.

Einstein’s conception assumed that consciousness is just along for the ride and the perspective of the two travelers is relative.  Einstein’s account of time dilation relies on the popular twentieth century view of consciousness as epiphenomenal to matter, a function of the brain not attributable to any of its parts but rather born out of the synergy of the known functions.  In this conception consciousness is attached to the body and not therefore a fundamental element in the thought experiment.

Deleuze and Guattari mark out a human body that itself occupies space as an absolute, a body that is in fact involved in an absolute movement.  Here, their affirmation of the Vedic conception of the body is essential, for there not only is light one of the elemental substances comprising the body, but all the elements are woven from fibers of light (nadis) moving in a vortexinal motion.   Under these conditions the coordinates of the body are absolute, and time for a person is not the same as the time for an inert mechanical body.  This fundamentally alters Einstein’s conception so that the relativity of time does not brush aside the existence of consciousness.  One still escapes a gravitational space in order to experience an alteration in time, but here it is accomplished by “motionless voyage.”  It is only when consciousness (and therefore the experience of duration) is thus given absolute status that the Eleatic paradoxes can be overcome for relativity and Einstein’s theory can take on its full significance.  The compromise to be struck between relativity and Bergsonism is simple and elegant:  the changing durations of time, the experience of time speeding up and slowing down in consciousness is also the very action of time dilation as an effect of the motion of chakras, to which consciousness bears a direct relationship.

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